WASHINGTON --- Would a Hillary Clinton administration welcome back lobbyists with open arms?
The Clinton campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But lobbyists who are part of Clinton's deep network of Washington contacts have raised millions of dollars for her campaign -- suggesting that a President Clinton may be more open to appointing lobbyists to positions in her administration.
But first, Clinton -- if she wins in November -- would have to decide how to tackle an existing executive order put in place by President Barack Obama largely barring lobbyists from working in the executive branch.
In 2008, then-candidate Obama pledged not to take money from registered lobbyists for his campaign. Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee ended the ban on lobbyist donations that Obama enacted in 2008.
But lobbyists have raised about $7 million for the 2016 Clinton campaign so far, and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta co-founded what became one of Washington's top lobby firms with his brother, prominent Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta - a top Clinton bundler.
After eight years in Washington as first lady, the Democratic nominee and her husband, the former president, also have a vast network of influence in the nation's capital. Many former Bill Clinton officials and aides have gone on to lead lucrative lobby shops or take in-house lobbying jobs at corporations.
But the question is how Clinton could loosen the restrictions without appearing to endorse outside influence peddling, especially after a campaign that saw cries against the "rigged system" from both sides of the aisle.
Obama's executive order imposed strict rules about lobbyist participation that went farther than previous administrations.
It barred political appointees in his administration, if they were registered lobbyists within the previous two years, from working for agencies they'd lobbied during the previous two years. However, the administration almost immediately made an exception to its own rule, issuing a waiver that allowed Obama to nominate former Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn III as deputy defense secretary. Since then, the White House has issued three more waivers and welcomed a number of ex-lobbyists into senior roles - prompting critics to say the rule was just for show.
If Clinton wants to, changing Obama's executive order barring lobbyists would be relatively simple.
Executive orders do not expire when the administration that issued them exit the White House. However, they can be superseded by new executive orders issued by a fledgling administration. In other words, all Clinton would have to do in January - hypothetically - is issue an order that would revise or override the previous administration's decision.
There is some speculation that Obama could lift or loosen the restrictions on lobbyists before leaving office, which would save Clinton the political trouble of having to do it herself. A White House spokeswoman said Friday there are no updates to the lobbyist policy at this time.
But some lobbyists who support Clinton are pondering whether that may soon change.
"I wonder if it's been the experience of the administration over the course of two terms that the ban has, on occasion, impeded their ability to hire the best people," said Democratic lobbyist Al Mottur, one of the top lobbyist bundlers for the Clinton campaign. "If so, it'd make sense for them to lift the restriction or relax it prior to turning over the reins."
Rich Gold, a Democratic lobbyist who's fundraised for Clinton, said there is "probably an 80 percent chance" either Obama or Clinton will make changes to the lobbyist policy, but "who that is and how they do it is speculation at this point."
Many lobbyists say Obama's executive order merely encouraged lobbyists to de-register, and prevented knowledgeable and well-connected people from working for the administration.
"There are other ways to achieve the goal without eliminating a whole class of people," Gold said. "And it's also driven registrations underground. There aren't fewer lobbyists - there are just fewer people who are registered. For both those reasons, it's probably got to be corrected."
The number of registered lobbyists dropped from about 14,000 in 2008 to 10,500 in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying activity.
However, many individuals who work at lobby firms or who oversee lobbying divisions of organizations are not registered. The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires lobbyists to register if they spend at least 20 percent of their time lobbying for a client - but that rule is not difficult to circumvent.
Unregistered lobbyists can still influence policy by giving clients so-called "strategic counsel" that doesn't fall under the technical definition of lobbying but nonetheless has the same aim - and often achieves the same outcome.
Ethics experts and open-government groups say any revised lobbyist policy under a new administration should better address the rise of unregistered lobbyists.
"A stronger and updated policy should focus less on whether individuals have previously registered as lobbyists, and more on whether they have worked for corporations or trade associations with pecuniary interests in relevant areas," said Robert Weissman, president of watchdog Public Citizen.
"That approach would eliminate the problem of people gaming the lobby registration rules, and would focus on the real issue: how powerful interests are rigging the system through revolving door appointments."
Norm Eisen was the White House "ethics czar" from 2009 to 2011, helping draft and enforce Obama's executive order. He said it would be difficult for any Democratic administration following Obama to abandon the lobbyist restrictions altogether because they helped maintain high ethical standards.
"Even opponents of the executive order have to concede that it's one part of a system that has maintained a very high level of integrity and compliance in the executive branch during the Obama years," he said.
He agrees with Weissman that the new administration needs to address the revolving door of public relations professionals and other consultants who do not register as lobbyists.
"There's a whole cadre of folks who are not required to register under [Lobbying Disclosure Act] and yet who are purveying special interest influence," Eisen said. "The influence industry has grown since the executive order was signed, so the new president is going to need to figure out a way to address that."
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